Ohio police this past summer shocked broadband users nationwide by engaging in an unprecedented and frighteningly severe crackdown
of area customers who had uncapped their cable modems. In conjunction with the FBI, 17 Buckeye cable users were served warrants, seven of whom had their possessions taken, face fifth-degree felony charges (punishable by up to one year in prison), and have had their lives changed forever.
For the record, uncapping ( hacking your modem in order to gain access to untapped bandwidth) is not legal. Those who perform the practice can expect retaliation from their broadband provider, and should expect serious repercussions for doing so. That said, one Ohio ISP has taken punishment for the practice to an unprecedented level that should raise the eyebrows of providers, customers, and concerned citizens alike.
The Block family is the Rupert Murdoch of Toledo, Ohio. The company controls several major area newspapers (including The Toledo Blade
), one of the area's television stations (TV5 Toledo
), a dial up provider, Buckeye Cable, and much more. As such, their control over the political system in the area is considerable, a fact that may under-ride the horrifying journey several individuals are taking through the area's legal gauntlet because they uncapped their cable modems.
Paul Shryock, vice president of information technology at Buckeye Cablesystem
, discovered that twenty three of his subscribers were getting more juice from their connections than they paid for. According to an interview in a recent Cable World
article, Shyrock noted that one subscriber had "altered his modem to handle 100 megabits per second, up and downstream
", though the company could never realistically even obtain such speeds.
Shryock also confirmed the company wasn't sure how customers were getting the extra speed. "We don't fully understand how they're pulling this off just yet, but we're learning more every day.
While the methods Shryock used to discover the offenders who weren't going download crazy is somewhat of a mystery, a greater mystery is how Shyrock came up with the cost impact numbers he would later use to nail subscribers to the wall with the help of the FBI.
The FBI's computer crime department needs computer offenses to total over 250,000 dollars before they'll get involved in local crimes. Conveniently for Buckeye cable, Shryock "guesstimated" that the 23 total offenders contributed to more than that amount in bandwidth theft, nearly eleven thousand dollars worth of bandwidth theft per offender.
Instead of disconnecting service for uncapping (as is the case with nearly every provider in the U.S.) Buckeye Cablesystem decided to get the FBI involved. Of the 23 who were to be served search warrants, 17 actually received visits from the FBI and local law enforcement. Seven actually found themselves indicted by the local grand jury and currently face fifth degree felony charges.
One of several defendants we spoke to places his estimated lost income and hardware at over half a million dollars. Brandon Wirtz, who operates more than one business out of his home, was on the verge of releasing a Smartcard based DRM solution for Windows Media Player to several different companies before his life was turned upside-down. Wirtz is a respected young writer, consultant and tech wiz in the industry
, and In April will be Awarded a Microsoft MVP award for his involvement in the Windows Media Community.
Thanks to local construction, Wirtz, who never signed a contract with Buckeye, claims his broadband connection was incapable of achieving speeds higher than 128kbps down. By utilizing a Cisco configuration file, he uncapped his Motorola Surfboard modem to 2.5MBps, for what he estimates was no more than a total of 16 hours, and only when he needed to move large files. The worst that could happen to him, he figured, was that his ISP got angry and disconnected his service. He couldn't have been more wrong.
It wasn't long before twelve plain-clothed officers greeted Wirtz at his front door with a search warrant and a smile, coyly asking "Is there anything interesting about your cable?
" The officers wound up taking every computer in the house, ironically excluding the PC in his living room that actually installed the uncapping software. Wirtz and his roommate lost at least 8 PC's total, even those who were behind firewalls and incapable of benefitting from the uncapped modem. Law enforcement confiscated all of the hardware from the companies Wirtz built, which contained his work, client contacts, and a book he had written.
Wirtz even lost his VCR in the deal, and Sylvania Township police debated confiscating his Xbox gaming console, but decided to leave it behind. The officers confiscated his legitimate CD copies of Windows Office and several operating systems, all of his burned CD's, and a security card writing machine instead.
Wirtz and several others now face a December 13 court date to determine if they qualify for "diversions", a twelve step program for non-sexual criminal offenders. If Wirtz passes a series of background and substance abuse checks, he may be qualified to pay $3400 in fines and have his record wiped clean if he attends the program. His possessions, client contact information and computers may never be returned, and Wirtz finds himself in a serious financial hole thanks to frightened clients and mounting legal fees, though he's yet to give up on broadband. He's now a happy Wi-Fi customer.
John Weglian, chief of the special units division of the prosecutor’s office, offers no apologies for Buckeye's unusually harsh treatment of the uncappers. "Cyber crime is potentially very damaging to society. We are taking a firm position on that type of criminal activity. We hope these cases will have a deterrent value, given the cost factors for the defendants in successful prosecutions.
But not everyone in the region agrees that the case is entirely about bandwidth theft.
George Runner, among those indicted
by the grand jury, has had a long history of disagreement with area officials, the Block family included. Runner, a former Lucas County assistant prosecutor, left the area after being accused of stealing county supplies, an act which was caught on videotape by a hidden camera.
That camera, which was illegally placed, forced the resignation of village police chief Lance Martin, and added fuel to the fire of disagreement between Runner and regional officials. According to area locals, the Block family patriarch Paul Block had always disliked George Runner, who the Blocks claimed was overly secretive of details in cases he was prosecuting for the county.
Runner will most likely not be offered the chance to attend the diversions program, and was one of the only offenders forced through booking (mugshots, fingerprints). While it's pure speculation to link Runner's legal problems with his area disagreements, it's something that begs asking. Calls to Runner's attorney's office for comment were not returned by press time.
When the Block family first came to Toledo, Paul Block was rumored to have said he was going to "rip down Toledo and rebuild it in his image". The behavior of Buckeye Cablesystem has many wondering exactly what kind of image he had in mind.